The fate of the over 50s….

In recent months, a number of my friends and former colleagues in their 40s and 50s have found themselves being retrenched. Nothing surprising in that, you might say – it’s a common fate of many middle and senior managers to be “delayered” by their organisations. And of course, redundancy is now something that everyone in the workforce must expect to face at least 3-4 times in their career.

What is surprising is that in most cases, these friends and associates have been taking deliberate steps to remain relevant, by retraining and upskilling, by keeping up to date on business trends, or by engaging with new opportunities via meetups and networking events. Nevertheless, their employers have found reason to cut their positions – and despite a bar on age discrimination, the likelihood of some of these older workers finding comparable roles is greatly reduced.

This scenario is not helped by the challenges younger workers are experiencing in finding their ideal job, at least during the first few years of their careers. I would probably dispute this assertion, for the simple fact that many younger workers do not really know what career they intend to pursue, or are not aware of what options are open to them. Plus, apart from areas like medicine, science and engineering, secondary and tertiary education should be less about getting formal qualifications and more about learning how to learn, how to engage with new ideas, how to explore different concepts, how to acquire different experiences, and above all about being prepared for life….. (In my own case, I probably didn’t find my “true” career path until about 5 years after joining the workforce – a process helped by undertaking some further training when the time and circumstances were right for me. But this “delay” did not prevent me from gaining valuable experience in a series of jobs – especially as employers did not expect younger new hires to stay more than 2 years in the same role.)

Some of the corporate job-cutting is no doubt driven by economic and financial necessity, in the face of automation – and this is a trend which probably puts older workers at a disadvantage, if they are deemed less able to learn or adapt to the new technology. But as I have argued before, being older should not mean being obsolete.

One friend noted that in transitioning to a new role, there was a higher expectation that they would adapt and learn the ropes more quickly than a younger new hire. Again, this puts older workers at a disadvantage as they will be cut less slack than a rookie in a similar role.

So it seems that older workers are seen as less able (or less willing?) to learn new technology; but at the same time, they are expected to deal with change and disruption more easily then some new entrants to the workforce. There is also a growing expectation that the older you are, or the longer you have been in your previous role, the longer and harder it will be to find a suitable new position. (Again, in my own case, after I left my last corporate gig, I spent 5 years doing a range of consulting projects and contract roles, before finding myself working in a totally new industry – one that is at the cutting edge of disruptive technology, and didn’t really exist at the time I left the corporate world.)

Finally, I was struck by the comment of a former colleague who is being tempted back into the workplace, having made a conscious decision to take earlier retirement:

“I like being retired. I also know that one day you’re the hero and the next day you’re considered part of the problem.”

Next week: Beyond Blocks, Tokyo

 

 

 

More on Purpose

Regular readers may be familiar with the name Carolyn Tate from my previous blogs on purpose, and the Slow School of Business. Last week, Carolyn launched her latest book, The Purpose Project, a distillation of the past seven years of her work, and quite possibly a road map for anyone wanting to take control of their own destiny at work.

I would describe The Purpose Project as a cross between a first aid kit for a disillusioned workforce and a survival guide for the modern workplace. But as with defining your own “purpose”, the value is in the mind of the reader, rather than in any prescriptive solution or outcome.

Having spent the past few years working with Carolyn at Slow School, I know that her views on this topic have subtly changed. Slow School itself initially appealed to, and was designed for, independent consultants (“solopreneurs”) and aspiring consultants (“corporate escapees”). But as the concept of finding purpose in our work has started to take hold, Carolyn now encourages her readers to find their own purpose where they are, rather than rushing headlong into a new job, a new company, a new career or even into entrepreneurship (which as we know, isn’t for everyone).

I first connected with Carolyn at the Slow School, when I was exploring my own purpose as an independent consultant (and sometime corporate escapee….). Slow School provides a community of like-minded souls with a “safe” space to test new ideas, a playground to kick around new concepts, and an environment to challenge our own assumptions. Unsurprisingly, a key part of The Purpose Project is a list of 50 questions designed to help readers dig deeper into their own purpose, modeled on the Japanese concept of ikigai”. There are also some tools and practices to bring purpose to life in our current work.

In my own case, I still think my purpose is a work in progress, and is never settled – much of my career has been driven by a need for new ideas and experiences, work that is intellectually stimulating, and a willingness to engage in continuous learning (while feeding an enduring curiosity and maintaining a healthy dose of skepticism). These factors, even more than formal qualifications or faddish management theories, have helped me to build resilience and navigate a rapidly changing work environment.

One point where I may disagree with Carolyn is this notion about finding purpose through staying in your current role or workplace – that it’s not necessary to leave. While I agree that it may be possible to reshape your current job to suit your personal needs and preferences, staying in an unrewarding job or remaining with an organisation that does not value you is like persevering with an unhealthy relationship.

In short, I’m quite pessimistic about the ability for large corporations and large institutions (as they are currently framed and constituted) to help us connect with our individual purpose, or even to provide the space to do so. And of course, rapid changes in the very nature of work, the way we work, the economic structures and business models that have traditionally underpinned employment and the value exchange of labour require us to take more control over where, how and with whom we choose to spend our working time.

Next week: Agtech Pitch Night at SproutX

 

 

Making an Impact at Startup Victoria’s Pitch Night

A relatively new term that was coined around the time of the GFC, “impact investing” can be seen in the same light as CSR, TBL, ethical investing and conscious capitalism, whereby businesses combine purpose with profit, underpinned by strong and open corporate governance, with the specific goal of delivering social and environmental outcomes. Not to be confused, of course, with NFPs or social enterprises.

The latest pitch night hosted by Startup Victoria, with support from impact VC investor Giant Leap Fund, presented four startups that all aspire to bring about some form of social impact, in areas such as: transport for women; gender diversity in the workplace; mental health; and training for disability support workers. (Surprisingly, there were no pitches from startups with a direct environmental impact.)

In order of appearance, the startups were (as usual, links are in the titles):

Diverse City Careers

Offering a new approach to recruitment, DCC only work with employers who meet their standards on workplace policies for women. Currently seeking $1m in investment, they claim that 50% of their candidates get shortlisted, and 25% get hired, and already have 80 accredited employers on their books.

Using an endorsement model for accredited employers, as well as standard recruitment services, DCC is able to generate both annuity and transaction revenue. By ranking employers and holding them accountable for their own policies, is able to promote best practice and establish industry benchmarks. DCC is now moving into industry and media partnerships, and plans to build a dashboard for analytics.

The panel of judges were keen to understand how DCC will maintain its point of differentiation, as well as build on its definition of diversity (e.g., transgender, transsexual and intersex). And given that there are federal initiatives already in this space, does an accreditation from DCC have as much value or impact?

Enabler

According to data provided by the presenters, around 1.9m disabled people in Australia need support workers. With the introduction of the NDIS, the number of trained helpers needs to grow from 300k to 600k, and there are currently 3,500 disability service providers to help train, recruit and employ these support workers. A key challenge is the quality of available education, with providers only spending $1,265 per worker per annum on training and development.

Enabler is seeking a $250k seed investment to launch a new product, comprising core content and training modules distributed online and delivered via mobile devices. With a focus on personalised content, Enabler is already in talks with 11 service providers and engaging with existing paying customers (who represent as few as 70 to around 1400 end users).

The key challenge I found with this pitch was the lack of explanation on why current training content and materials are proving to be so inadequate (even allowing for differences in individual learning styles). For example, what makes Enabler’s service so much better, and how will it achieve sustainable personalization in a product that needs to be both scalable and economically viable?

Shebah

This is a ride share service for women drivers and passengers (and their kids and pets), that grew out of economic and social necessity. It started life as a project on Go Fund Me, has since pivoted to Shebah, launched a mobile app, and is now available in Melbourne, Geelong, Brisbane, Gold Coast, Sydney and Sunshine Coast (with Perth, Darwin and Adelaide to follow).

Adoption among the disability community has been a notable side effect (e.g., enabling customers to get to medical appointments), and each driver gets a free consultation with a CPA about setting up an ABN etc.

Experiencing 40% growth in volume (and 100 new accredited drivers per week), the founder is asking for $500k funding to hire an in-house engineer/developer to build additional app functionality (such as pre-booking), scaling the business and growing to a minimum 1,000 rides per day. The app can already take multiple currencies, and there has been interest from Mexico, South Africa and Brazil.

With the various issues facing Uber and the gig-economy itself, the judges were naturally keen to understand how Shebah regards its own drivers (i.e., employees or freelances). For registration, tax and accounting purposes, Shebah drivers are treated as independent contract workers (sole traders), with no required minimum hours. (The founder mentioned potential plans to offer drivers share options in the business, which could prove an interesting business model.)

Despite some reasonably high-profile media coverage, Shebah has not undertaken any advertising campaigns, relying instead on general publicity and friendly ambassadors.

Asked about customer experience measures, the founder mentioned average waiting time, and driver retention as key indicators (apparently, the only 4% of Uber drivers last more than 12 months). Shebah also acknowledged that their fares are cheaper than taxis (but more expensive than Uber) with an average fare of $25, representing a margin of less than 10%

Limbr

With a tag line of “a place to be real”, Limbr is an app-based platform that is designed to take some of the stigma out of mental illness, and provide easier access to mental health services.

Despite the staggering mental health statistics, two-thirds of sufferers never seek treatment. To break down some of the barriers and overcome access issues, Limbr offers a three-tier service: a free “social network”, a personal dashboard tool, and online support from qualified mental health professionals (“listeners, coaches, therapists”). The revenue model is a combination of subscription fees and commission from provider sales, plus evidence-based public funding.

The founders recognize it’s a highly fragmented market, so therapists are interested in the referral aspect of this new channel to market. (One challenge is that the current $10 bulk bill rebate to see a therapist is not available for e-health providers.)

The app plans to use popularity to drive traction, and while the message that it’s “OK to share” is designed to be positive and encourage a healthier approach to mental illness, there was some concern that in some ways, the internet has normalised the issue. The presentation mentioned that there are 20m posts about depression on Instagram. So, isn’t social media, along with increased isolation and anti-social online behaviour part of the problem?

Asked by the judges about privacy, authentication and trust, Limbr plans to go to market via therapist advocates, and will focus on moderation and data analytics.

Based on the night’s presentation, the judges awarded Shebah first prize, and it certainly was the most engaging and rounded pitch of the four.

Next week: More on Purpose

 

The Future of Work = Creativity + Autonomy

Some recent research from Indiana University suggests that, in the right circumstances, a stressful job is actually good for you. Assuming that you have a sufficient degree of control over your own work, and enough individual input on decision-making and problem-solving, you may actually live longer. In short, the future of work and the key to a healthy working life is both creativity and autonomy.

Time to re-think what the “dignity of labour” means? (Image sourced from Discogs)

Context

In a previous blog, I discussed the changing economic relationship we have with work, in which I re-framed what we mean by “employment”, what it means to be “employed”, and what the new era of work might look like, based on a world of “suppliers” (who offer their services as independent contractors) and “clients” (who expect access to just-in-time and on-demand resources).

The expanding “gig economy” reinforces the expectation that by 2020, average job tenure will be 3 years, and around 40% of the workforce will be employed on a casual basis (part-time, temporary, contractor, freelance, consultant etc.). The proliferation of two-sided market places such as Uber, Foodera, Freelancer, Upwork, Sidekicker, 99designs, Envato and Fiverr are evidence of this shift from employee to supplier.

We are also seeing a trend for hiring platforms that connect teams of technical and business skills with specific project requirements posted by hiring companies. Many businesses understand the value of people pursuing and managing “portfolio careers”, because companies may prefer to access this just-in-time expertise as and when they need it, not take on permanent overheads. But there are still challenges around access and “discovery”: who’s available, which projects, defining roles, agreeing a price etc.

Contribution

Meanwhile, employers and HR managers are re-assessing how to re-evaluate employee contribution. It’s not simply a matter of how “hard” you work (e.g., the hours you put in, or the sales you make). Companies want to know what else you can do for them: how you collaborate, do you know how to ask for help, and are you willing to bring all your experience, as well as who and what you know to the role? (As a case in point, when Etsy’s COO, Linda Kozlowski was recently asked about her own hiring criteria, she emphasized the importance of critical thinking, and the ability for new hires to turn analysis into actionable solutions.)

In another blog on purpose, I noted that finding meaningful work all boils down to connecting with our values and interests, and finding a balance between what motivates us, what rewards us, what we can contribute, and what people want from us. As I wrote at the time, how do we manage our career path, when our purpose and our needs will change over time? In short, the future of work will be about creating our own career opportunities, in line with our values, purpose and requirements.*

Compensation

From an economic and social policy perspective, no debate about the future of work can ignore the dual paradoxes:

  1. We will need to have longer careers (as life expectancy increases), but there will be fewer “traditional” jobs to go round;
  2. A mismatch between workforce supply and in-demand skills (plus growing automation) will erode “traditional” wage structures in the jobs that do remain

Politicians, economists and academics have to devise strategies and theories that support social stability based on aspirational employment targets, while recognising the shifting market conditions and the changing technological environment. And, of course, for trade unions, more freelance/independent workers and cheaper hourly rates undermine their own business model of an organised membership, centralised industrial awards, enterprise bargaining and the residual threat of industrial action when protective/restrictive practices may be under threat.

Which is why there needs to be a more serious debate about ideas such as the Universal Basic Income, and grants to help people to start their own business. On the Universal Basic Income (UBI), I was struck by a recent interview with everyone’s favourite polymath, Brian Eno. He supports the UBI because:

“…we’re now looking towards a future where there will be less and less employment, inevitably automation is going to make it so there simply aren’t jobs. But that’s alright as long as we accept the productivity that the automations are producing feeds back to people ….. [The] universal basic income, which is basically saying we pay people to be alive – it makes perfect sense to me.”

If you think that intellectuals like Eno are “part of the problem“, then union leaders like Tim Ayres (who advocates the “start-up grant”), actually have more in common with Margaret Thatcher than perhaps they realise. It was Thatcher’s government that came up with the original Enterprise Allowance Scheme which, despite its flaws, can be credited with launching the careers of many successful entrepreneurs in the 1980s. Such schemes can also help the workforce transition from employment in “old” heavy industries to opportunities in the growing service sectors and the emerging, technology-driven enterprises of today.

Creativity

I am increasingly of the opinion that, whatever our chosen or preferred career path, it is essential to engage with our creative outlets: in part to provide a counterbalance to work/financial/external demands and obligations; in part to explore alternative ideas, find linkages between our other interests, and to connect with new and emerging technology.

In discussing his support for the UBI, Eno points to our need for creativity:

“For instance, in prisons, if you give people the chance to actually make something …. you say to them ‘make a picture, try it out, do whatever’ – and the thrill that somebody gets to find that they can actually do something autonomously, not do something that somebody else told them to do, well, in the future we’re all going to be able to need those kind of skills. Apart from the fact that simply rehearsing yourself in creativity is a good idea, remaining creative and being able to go to a situation where you’re not told what to do and to find out how to deal with it, this should be the basic human skill that we are educating people towards and what we’re doing is constantly stopping them from learning.”

I’ve written recently about the importance of the maker culture, and previously commented on the value of the arts and the contribution that they make to society. There is a lot of data on the economic benefits of both the arts and the creative industries, and their contribution to GDP. Some commentators have even argued that art and culture contribute more to the economy than jobs and growth.

Even a robust economy such as Singapore recognises the need to teach children greater creativity through the ability to process information, not simply regurgitate facts. It’s not because we might need more artists (although that may not be a bad thing!), but because of the need for both critical AND creative thinking to complement the demand for new technical skills – to prepare students for the new world of work, to foster innovation, to engage with careers in science and technology and to be more resilient and adaptive to a changing job market.

Conclusions

As part of this ongoing topic, some of the questions that I hope to explore in coming months include:

1. In the debate on the “Future of Work”, is it still relevant to track “employment” only in statistical terms (jobs created/lost, unemployment rates, number of hours worked, etc.)?

2. Is “job” itself an antiquated economic unit of measure (based on a 9-5, 5-day working week, hierarchical and centralised organisational models, and highly directed work practices and structures)?

3. How do we re-define “work” that is not restricted to an industrial-era definition of the “employer-employee/master-servant” relationship?

4. What do we need to do to ensure that our education system is directed towards broader outcomes (rather than paper-based qualifications in pursuit of a job) that empower students to be more resilient and more adaptive, to help them make informed decisions about their career choices, to help them navigate lifelong learning pathways, and to help them find their own purpose?

5. Do we need new ways to evaluate and reward “work” contribution that reflect economic, scientific, societal, environmental, community, research, policy, cultural, technical, artistic, academic, etc. outcomes?

* Acknowledgment: Some of the ideas in this blog were canvassed during an on-line workshop I facilitated last year on behalf of Re-Imagi, titled “How do we find Purpose in Work?”. For further information on how you can access these and other ideas, please contact me at: rory@re-imagi.co

Next week: Designing The Future Workplace